The man formerly known as James Covington, a convicted murderer who has spent the past 23 years in prison, is now listed by a new name, Jamauri Covington, in New Hampshire Department of Corrections records.
Covington asked for a legal name change last year, writing in his petition that he has worked hard to correct his wrongdoings and wanted “a fresh start.” Since the department didn’t object, the circuit court granted his request in November, according to court records.
But now the state is suing to undo Covington’s name change, arguing that the circuit court in Lancaster overstepped its bounds and failed to abide by the state’s stricter name-change procedures for people who are incarcerated or on parole or probation.
Commissioner Helen E. Hanks said the department is working with the attorney general’s office to reverse the circuit court’s decision. Hanks said her department didn’t respond to Covington’s original request because the petition was not served to her office.
“We do not support this name change,” she added.
State law requires that a copy of an incarcerated person’s name-change petition be served on the Department of Corrections. Court records indicate that the Coos County sheriff’s office hand-delivered that copy to a staffer at the prison in September 2022 at Covington’s expense.
Covington pleaded guilty in May 2000 to second-degree murder for fatally strangling and suffocating his ex-girlfriend Debra Duncan, 33, in his Somersworth apartment in July 1999, according to court records. He later sought to withdraw his guilty plea but was denied, and his numerous legal filings since then have failed to modify his sentence.
Authorities said Covington had another woman over to drink beer and have sex in his apartment while Duncan’s body was bound and hidden in a closet, as Foster’s Daily Democrat reported in 2005. The next day, he dumped Duncan’s body at a cemetery in Peabody, Massachusetts.
Covington, 59, is serving 30 years to life at the Northern New Hampshire Correctional Facility in Berlin. His earliest parole eligibility date will come in September 2028, according to Department of Corrections records.
Covington tried so many legal maneuvers after his conviction that a Strafford County Superior Court judge issued an order in 2006 to excuse the attorney general’s office from having to file a substantive response to any of his future pleadings, unless specifically directed to do so by the court.
When Covington requested a sentence reduction in 2019, Duncan’s family members objected. Her brother-in-law, Russell Perkey, said Covington’s full sentence is warranted by the heinousness of his crime.
“I did three tours in combat in my career in the military. Nothing I saw during those combat tours was anything as vile as what he did,” Perkey told the court, as WMUR reported at the time. “I don’t think he should ever walk free.”
Covington has claimed that he thought his plea deal meant his sentence would be capped at 30 years, not 30 years to life, but state judges have repeatedly rejected that argument, most recently in March.
Covington filed a federal lawsuit in 2021 accusing a prison nurse of sexually assaulting him over a five-year period, but a judge ruled in the nurse’s favor and dismissed the suit, concluding that the relationship, as alleged, appeared to be consensual. (The nurse denied having a sexual relationship with Covington, though an internal investigation deemed the allegation of a sexual relationship as substantiated, according to court records.)
Amanda Grady Sexton, public affairs director for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said allowing a convicted murderer to change their name makes it harder for the public to make thoughtful decisions about who they invite into their homes and lives.
“When a violent offender changes their name, both victims and communities face an added barrier to being informed about the offender’s whereabouts,” she said. “This experience is stressful to victims and dangerous for communities.”
Being aware of an individual’s past offenses is particularly important in cases involving domestic and sexual violence, since such behavior often follows a pattern, she said.
“Domestic violence escalates over time. It’s also the most lethal crime in New Hampshire,” she said. “Most sexual offenders also have multiple victims.”
Those concerns are baked into the state’s lawsuit to void Covington’s name change. The suit, which was filed July 31 in Coos County Superior Court, argues that the state has an interest in protecting Covington’s victims throughout the criminal justice process — which means the rest of his lifetime — while also ensuring that anyone who may choose to enter into an intimate relationship with him in the future has the ability to track down accurate information about him through public channels.
Procedurally, the lawsuit contends that the Department of Corrections is under no legal obligation to respond to a name-change petition. Rather, the petitioner must make a “compelling showing” that the name change is “necessary” and the circuit court must conclude that the change is necessary before granting it.
“The circuit court did not do that here,” the lawsuit states.
Since the court lacked statutory authority to sign off on Covington’s name change, the change must be voided, the lawsuit argues.
Covington could not immediately be reached for comment. It’s unclear whether he has an attorney.
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice referred all questions to the argument laid out in the lawsuit.